Mark Twain’s description of the Grangerford/Shepherdson feud and James Webb’s Born Fighting take different perspectives on a tough, independent strain central to American culture. The Grangerfords give honor to Pilgrim’s Progress and Henry Clay’s speeches; they decorate with Highland Marys and graveyard art. Their religion (predestination and brotherly love, while the guns are left at the door) echoes that hardy angularity Webb likes. But, of course, gone wrong, this can also produce a feud of honor over a pig. Gone wrong, it isn’t honor but tribalism. Faulkner, a writer of mythic and complex sensibility, appreciated the power of the passion that underlies such feuds, one he describes as “the old fierce pull of blood.” He counters it with the great ability western thought encourages: an ability to see the “other” as human, (as, indeed, burning with a spark of divinity). This leads us to transcend our blood loyalties, move from revenge to justice, from blood loyalty to national loyalty. Seeing all others as our brothers – ah, that is the great gift our tradition has given us. Webb sees the broader, more self-conscious and rational values that also permeate that tradition. But that primal urge, that fierce pull of blood, is always a part of us, a prioritizing we cannot help but feel.
The power of the tribal loyalty Twain captures was fresh on my mind when I happened upon “Cousin Marriage Conundrum”. Steve Sailor argues that “the ancient practice [of consanguinty] discourages democratic nation-building.” Then he quotes Randall Parker.
Consanguinity [cousin marriage] is the biggest underappreciated factor in Western analyses of Middle Eastern politics. Most Western political theorists seem blind to the importance of pre-ideological kinship-based political bonds in large part because those bonds are not derived from abstract Western ideological models of how societies and political systems should be organized. Extended families that are incredibly tightly bound are really the enemy of civil society because the alliances of family override any consideration of fairness to people in the larger society. Yet, this obvious fact is missing from 99% of the discussions about what is wrong with the Middle East. How can we transform Iraq into a modern liberal democracy if every government worker sees a government job as a route to helping out his clan at the expense of other clans?”
Not surprisingly, this Darwinian article was picked up by Pinker for an anthology, Best Science and Nature Writing 2004. As we might have predicted, this biological closeness leads to cultural distinctions.
In contrast, Americans probably disapprove of what scientists call ‘consanguineous’ mating more than any other nationality. Three huge studies in the U.S. between 1941 and 1981 found that no more than 0.2% of all American marriages were between first cousins or second cousins.
The level of consanguinity obviously leads to more trust within the family and less trust of those outside.
Sailer quotes a retired U.S. Army colonel Norvell De Atkine, who found these loyalties made training soldiers difficult and related it to the lack of trust for those outside the tribe. “Why Arabs Lose Wars” describes his frustration with the effect of such strong tribal loyalty – and such a weak sense of the state. Whether the election on Sunday works – or whether the constitution that comes out of it works – will probably depend to a large extent on how much those elected see themselves as Iraqis first and only secondly as members of the great three blocks and sees the family or tribe identification as a separate and even personal definition of self. Voicing that fact, a television interviewer asked a lovely American Iraqi how she felt: Today, she said, we think of ourselves as Iraqis and it is for Iraq we want the best. Today, we are not Shiite, Sunni or Kurd.
Sailers’ conclusion is less optimistic.
In summary, although neoconservatives constantly point to America’s success at reforming Germany and Japan after World War II has evidence that it would be easy to do the same in the Middle East, the deep social structure of Iraq is the complete opposite of those two true nation-states, with their highly patriotic, cooperative, and (not surprisingly) outbred peoples. The Iraqis, in contrast, more closely resemble the Hatfields and the McCoys.
But, we can hope that that young Iraqi in America represents many others. We see here the biological as well as cultural roots for the argument that Richard Rodriguez makes so often and so compellingly. (And here. This is a strong theme in his Brown) . But this is also implied by Ben Franklin’s and de Crevecoeur’s observations about the effect of the frontier on culture in the America of mid-eighteenth century. In his “Letters from an American Farmer” de Crevecoeur observes that “Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations.” In a sense, he got it wrong, believing that this leads to “religious indifference”; nonetheless, if his interpretation is off, the phenomenon he observes is real. That “indifference” became tolerance of other religions while often fervently holding one’s own. I suspect this is because religious loyalties are often at odds with genetic ones, since in America families are comprised of many different religious, as well as political, class, and even geographic loyalties.
This is the cultural argument for globalization. A sense of world citizenship is fed by the young spouses our soldiers are likely to bring home and starved by the planned matings that bring Arabs to America to marry their first cousins.